By J. MALCOLM GARCIA
I imagine it this way. Gypsy awakens from a restless sleep, stretches. Hears his muscles and bones crack, sees how his curtains absorb the light of a late San Francisco afternoon, and at that moment decides to start drinking again.
He doesn’t remember having a booze dream, just woke up and decided: Today is the day I’m going to get fucked up. Something clicks into place. Thank God, it’s been decided.
For days he had found it hard to sit still, hard to sleep. His body ached from the weight of his bitterness. He tried to read some of his old text books on alcoholism and its treatment, tried to take pleasure in his term papers and the comments scrawled in red, Nice insight! and Excellent observation! but those evening extension classes at Berkeley had been nothing but a betrayal, an illusion of accomplishment, and he tossed the books and his notepads across the room with a rage that kept him awake at night. He had done everything he should, and still he was denied what he deserved.
Now that he has decided to drink, he feels calm and almost falls asleep again. But he folds his hands behind his head and plans. He gets off at 6:30 a.m. He’ll hang out at the detox center for a moment at shift change, as he always does. He knows I have an interview for the shelter director position at 8 a.m. He wants to wish me luck. After all, he pushed me to apply. Then he’ll walk to a Sixth Street bar and cut loose his two years of sobriety.
Never forget who your friends are, he likes to remind me. Never forget where you came from.
I was hired by the Ozanam Detox Center in May, 1983. My first night on the job I left my Haight-Ashbury apartment and took Page Street toward downtown San Francisco, crossed Van Ness Avenue and walked along Market Street toward Seventh. The stores were gated shut and loose paper blew in swirls on the sidewalk, slapping against my legs and clinging to my jeans before being swept away by the wind.
Following Seventh to Howard, I passed a thrift store and then saw Ozanam, a large square warehouse-style brick building. The center was named after Frédéric Ozanam, a French scholar. He founded the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, of which the center was a part.
I entered an alley and knocked on a heavy metal door on the side of the building.
There you are, said Billy V, a detox counselor and the night shift supervisor. You’re late.
As a detox staffer, I was expected to arrive a half hour before my shift started, at 11 p.m., so that the previous shift would not have to stay past their punch-out time updating their relief.
Tonight, my first night, I’d arrived fifteen minutes late. I had not fully understood the purpose of the half-hour-early business. I was not thrilled to work nights.
I followed Billy V up a flight of stairs to the detox. A man with thinning black hair, a handlebar mustache, plaid shirt, jeans and boots, sat behind a desk. He looked at me and then turned away to change stations on a radio playing muzak.
This is Gypsy, Billy V. said. Gypsy, this is the new kid.
Gypsy looked at me again.
I’ll tell you who the assholes are around here, he said.
Gypsy rolls a joint. He is sober. Not clean and sober. Not like some of the other recovering staff who smoke dope but say they’re clean. That bugs him. The lies. He never pretends he doesn’t smoke pot. Gave Little Stevie a joint one morning when Stevie had the shakes so bad he couldn’t walk. Just rattled in place like an idling car with too much mileage. Stevie had been on the street fifteen years easy. Drinking maybe longer. He and Gypsy hung out together when Gypsy was drinking. A sight, the two of them. Gypsy over six feet and Little Stevie peaking at five-foot four on a good day. Face dirt-streaked, scraggy goatee scrapping with the wind, mop of brown hair, long tobacco-stained fingers dancing with the jitters, Stevie, shaking uncontrollably, looks to his friend Gypsy for help.
Gypsy held the joint until Stevie’s body stopped trembling long enough for him to clamp down on it with his mouth. He inhaled so long and deep Gypsy thought he might burst. After another hit, Stevie collapsed higher than God in the doorway of a used clothing store. Gypsy left him there to buy a mickey of T-bird at a liquor store a block away. He gave it to Stevie who held it in both hands like an infant with a bottle of formula, and downed it in four hard swallows, his Adam’s apple doing a rain dance up and down his throat. Then he belched and let out a long sigh, staining the air with the venom of his breath. His body still trembled but not so badly he couldn’t make it to the liquor store his own self and buy another mickey. He handed the joint back to Gypsy.
Thanks Gypo. You loan me a dollar?
You pay me back?
Stevie laughed, showing his toothless gums flecked with bits of weed. Gypsy gave him two dollars, one extra for inflation, he said, and walked to work. He felt good helping Stevie but a little ashamed too because the good feeling came from feeling superior. Gypsy had beaten booze. On his wall were the framed certificates from the classes he’d completed. Maybe it wasn’t superiority he felt but confidence. Maybe he was just grateful not to be in the same shape as Little Stevie. He didn’t know, didn’t dwell on it. He pocketed the joint and kept walking.
Gypsy knows the first swallow of Jack will fill him like a warm day at sunrise after a long winter, gradually spreading its light until the warmth seeps into every muscle, until all the stiffness in his neck and shoulders vanishes and his head clears of anger. The booze will leave his tongue dry and fuzzy. He’ll order a beer back and another shot of Jack, run his tongue against his teeth. Feel this vast reservoir he needs to fill.
After Billy V left, reminding me to show up a half fucking hour before shift change, Gypsy told me about a sex addict who had tried to check into detox weeks before. The addict told Billy V he went through ten male prostitutes a day. Oh, Billy V said. Oh, oh! I can’t stand it! Kind of jumping in his seat as the guy described each of his encounters. Oh! Oh! Oh! Of all my addictions, why couldn’t I have had that one? Billy V had said in a high-pitched drawling voice, exaggerating every syllable. At least the way Gypsy imitated him.
Billy V was a recovering dope fiend. Been clean maybe five years, Gypsy said. Never cuts his hair, he said, ties it off with a rubber band in a long ponytail and considers it combed for the day.
Always wears a long underwear top no matter how hot the weather, and an open chamois shirt. Has enough track marks on his arm to map out a road trip. Promoted to counselor a few months back. Last name Vidaver but everyone called him Billy V because Vidaver was such a weird fucking name.
Oh! Gypsy said again imitating him, Oh!, and laughed some more, and I laughed with him.
Over time, Gypsy tells me he drank every day when he was in the army, a four-year stint. After his discharge, he roamed the country. Drank Jack Daniels in the back of Greyhound buses to be close to the bathroom. He would pass out, wake up, and ask the driver where they were headed. His friends started calling him Gypsy because he never stayed in one place very long until he came to California. He was thirty-six when I met him and had been in San Francisco ten years. He didn’t tell me anything more about himself and his drinking and I never told him much about myself. I sure as hell didn’t say that when I got off shift in the morning I picked up a six pack of Budweiser and a small bottle of Schnapps. As I saw it, days were my nights, evenings my days, so I wasn’t really drinking in the morning.
The Ozanam Center Detox was open twenty-four/seven. It was a large dimly lit living room made dimmer by a dark brown carpet that absorbed the light. Round tables took up one side, and four couches provided additional beds when the thirty-bed dormitory filled up. Usually it was the police who dropped drunks off, slipping on rubber gloves before pulling someone infested with lice from the back of their squad car.
Staff signed in anyone requesting detox. They could stay for twenty-four hours. After they were discharged, they weren’t allowed to return for ten days, a rule that was little more than a token effort at preventing the detox from becoming a nightly crash pad for homeless alcoholics. But it was obvious from the thickness of the files that the majority of clients were repeaters who saw the Center as their permanent residence.
The intake took seconds to complete: name, age, when did they have their last drink, any known medical conditions, were they interested in an alcohol program. Then the client climbed the flight of stairs to detox, their steps heavy and slow until they stood swaying before Gypsy and me. We assigned them a bed and gave them a towel and soap to shower.
Graffiti in the drop-in center’s bathroom: There is no logic to good fortune or bad. An unpredictable randomness influences the outcome of most things. Most clients knew Gypsy from the street. “Gypsy!” they would shout in hoarse voices that emerged from deep, unfathomable chasms. Gypsy growled back in the same tone of voice, and they would all burst out laughing, reveling in a camaraderie developed from common experience and shared ruin. Gypsy would do them favors: wash their clothes, call their families, allow them to stay in detox longer than twenty-four hours. They treated him with the joyous self-consciousness a delinquent high school student might feel revisiting his favorite grammar school teacher.
At first, clients were leery of me because I was new and unknown. They would only speak with Gypsy.
He’s cool, Gypsy would say. I’m teaching him all he knows.
You’re gonna be an ignorant muthafuckah, laughed one man.
Not everyone, however, liked Gypsy. One guy in particular I recall. He was lean and all sinewy muscle and had done time in San Quentin for drug dealing. He walked stiff-legged and with his back arched in a jail-house strut. Call for him and he swiveled around in a hot second, perfectly balanced like a ballerina and lasering you down with his eyes. This guy, I don’t remember his name, thought Gypsy had grown too full of himself. Who did he think he was taking university extension classes? He was confident Gypsy would start drinking again because, he said, Gypsy was going nowhere. Nothing in his life had changed except his ego. Was he employed in the financial district or something? Was he hanging out with suits? No, Gypsy was still working the street even if it was as a program assistant at the Ozanam Center. The only difference, he wasn’t drinking.
During our shift, Gypsy often recited passages he had memorized from his textbooks. But I never had the sense he fully understood what he was saying. He had all this information in his head, but seemed unable to interpret it and draw conclusions and make it his own. He would lose his train of thought, begin to mumble, and then speak clearly again when his mind reconnected with the memorized bit. Most of the staff ignored him when he went off on one of his textbook monologues. Or they patronized him with the feigned interest adults reserve for the antics of very small children.
I don’t think Gypsy picked up on their condescension. Addicts are pretty self-centered. It’s all about the next drink, the next fix, the next close escape from disaster. In Gypsy’s case, it was about the next class, the next certificate, the next moment when he could believe he had found his place in the world. He looked at me with the assurance of someone who anticipated recognition.
In a bright corner of the detox was an open kitchen. After a client had showered, we offered him a bowl of chicken noodle soup and a sandwich: cheese, peanut butter and jelly, or tuna fish. We stretched the soup by adding so much water that it lost its color and grease puddles rose to the surface, pale like decomposing jellyfish. The sandwiches had been made in the morning. By the time we started our shift they were either soggy or hard as bricks. After twenty-four hours, detox clients were referred to the Salvation Army detox— Sally’s—where they remained for three additional days of drying out. From there, if they were lucky, they were referred to an inpatient alcoholism program. But most programs were full and the waiting lists sometimes were months long.
With no options other than white-knuckled sobriety, they returned to the street and we saw them again in ten days. I gradually noticed that the clients who stopped drinking were mostly those with a college education who’d had good jobs for years before alcohol overpowered them. Sober, they recognized they still had opportunities to pursue. They had solid professional backgrounds and family support that would help them make up for the wasted months and years of boozing.
Clients without an education who sobered up were often hired by the Ozanam Center. They knew little of the world beyond skid row. Most of them had been on the street as long as Little Stevie, and like him had not completed or even entered high school. Their expertise was in hustling drinks and drugs, and their only friends were other street hustlers. They started out like me, as program assistants, until they were promoted to counselor, a position they kept for years. Further advancement was not part of the program. Every now and then someone like Billy V became the exception to the rule. When I started, Billy V had just accepted a job at a methadone clinic. The few staff with college degrees often leap-frogged their way into administrative jobs. They were singled out at staff meetings as examples to aspire to. Gypsy knew I had a college degree, and that may be why he emphasized that he was the senior program assistant. He’d been on the job longer than any of the others at our level. We both answered to the counselors who supervised each shift. As the senior program assistant, Gypsy expected to be promoted into the position left vacant by Billy V’s departure.
Gypsy will resign before he starts drinking again. He won’t be like some of the other staff who have fallen off and then don’t show up for their next shift without notice. He’ll complete his shift and submit his resignation effective immediately before he punches out. Not much of a heads up but it will do. They’ll find someone to replace him. Everyone wants extra hours. Some guy at a half-way house will need a job. At some point, he’ll come back to get his final check. Maybe he’ll ask someone to pick it up for him.
He looks at his watch. He has more than twelve hours before he holds a Jack-filled shot glass in his hand. A long time. But he’ll make up for lost time soon enough.
When I arrived in San Francisco, I moved into a North Beach apartment with a childhood friend. Unemployed, I determined to find work in a social services agency that helped the homeless. When I was a boy, on weekends my father sometimes took me with him to his downtown Chicago office. On the way from our north suburban home to South Wells Street, we stopped at intersections beneath the El tracks and watched the wavering shadows of passing trains overhead. My father would tell me to keep my head down and lock my door when homeless men tapped on the windshield begging for spare change.
Since I had no experience in social services, I decided to volunteer somewhere. I chose the Ozanam Center because it was holding a volunteer orientation meeting the week I started looking for jobs.
On the morning of the orientation, a half dozen new volunteers were led into a bare office and took seats on both sides of a long rectangular table. Debra, the Center’s volunteer coordinator, told us that as volunteers we would be responsible for cleaning bathrooms and serving coffee in the drop-in center during the day. For the most part, Debra explained, the drop-in served as a waiting area for clients requesting detox, although she conceded that many used it as a place to hang out and play cards. At night, the drop-in was converted into a shelter. Volunteers stacked the tables and chairs in a corner and distributed fifty blue exercise mats across the floor to be used as beds.
I was assigned to work with another volunteer, Lyle. He stands out in my memory as clearly as a member of my own family. Perhaps because he was so unremarkable looking. He was about fifty, of average height and liked to dress well. He wore white button down shirts and creased gray slacks. He was forty something, balding, stooped and had a slight paunch. I could imagine him standing by my father on a platform waiting to catch a train into Chicago. He was certainly overdressed for the Center but maybe he was reimagining his life from some other time, before alcohol took over. He had been an accountant in “a previous life.” He carried a leather briefcase and made a great display of removing file folders from it as if he still had clients. At the time, Lyle had been sober two months.
He and I served coffee on weekday afternoons. When I came in for my shift, he would pinch my arms and ask if I worked out. No, I’d say. Well you should, he’d say, patting his stomach. Do you good or you’ll get flabby like me.
We both laughed and then began arranging Styrofoam cups for the coffe. I missed Lyle when he stopped showing up and I began working alone. I assumed he’d quit and resumed his accounting job, though I was surprised he had not given a notice or said goodbye.
After a few weeks of volunteering, Debra brought my name up to the director of the detox program, suggesting me as a replacement for a program assistant who had started drinking again and was fired. I learned later that the director thought it would be helpful to hire someone who was not a recovering alcoholic and therefore had no wagon to fall from. He called me into his office and offered me the night shift. I was surprised. I had not even submitted an application. But I did not hesitate. Struggling to survive on temp jobs, I took it.
As I left his office, stunned by the job offer, I saw a counselor help Lyle through the door. His clothes were torn and covered with dried mud. Cuts and bruises scarred his unshaven face. One eye was swollen shut. His hands shook and he was led to a chair. He shoved his hands beneath his legs. He didn’t have his briefcase.
How long have you been drinking?, the counselor asked him.
About a week.
Where have you been staying?
Outside. Golden Gate Park.
I looked at Lyle but said nothing. He returned my look, then turned away. A dazed expression crossed his face. The counselor dropped on the desk a thick, worn file with a flap reading Norton, Lyle in faded ink and inserted a blank page.
That first night on the job, Gypsy would not allow me a break. He wanted me to see the shift in its entirety, every little thing. I struggled to stay awake, checked clients, made sandwiches and mopped the floors while Gypsy took a two-hour break. Later, he admitted he had been fucking with me because I was new. He laughed a laugh that was a combination soft chuckle and smoker’s cough. His face reddened, but the mischief dancing in his eyes was hard to resist and I laughed too.
When he told me to walk down Sixth Street on my way to work to see for myself San Francisco’s skid row, I knew he was daring me, but I took him up on it to show I wasn’t afraid.
In the 1950s, the row was centered downtown just south of Market Street on Howard between Third and Fourth and more or less leaching into streets and alleys for a few blocks all around. It was where most of San Francisco’s chronic street alcoholics hung out during the day, bought their booze, panhandled, and slept in flophouses or doorways.
That area was gentrified beginning in the 1970s with then-controversial urban renewal programs that tore down cheap housing, and Sixth Street between Market and Howard became the new row.
Neon lights glowed in multiple colors above triple X arcades the night I walked through. Liquor stores lined both sides of the street and carried posters advertising Night Train and Thunderbird wines for ninety-nine cents a bottle. Dilapidated welfare hotels, once called flop houses, rose above the liquor stores, and chunks of broken plaster and shattered glass and pigeon shit sprinkled the sticky sidewalk. Men lounged in doorways and poorly lit lobbies where televisions flickered in spastic bursts.
I passed boarded stores, looked down dark and impenetrable alleys that carried the gruff voices of invisible people possessed by shadows. I glanced in bars, saw men and women huddled together like gnomes: not speaking, staring absently, heavy lidded and confused. They watched me, leaning forward on crutches as if they knew by my determined walk that I had a destination and therefore did not belong there. The ones on the sidewalk reached up clutching at me, their mouths open, gasping, toothless and cavernous, spouting slurred words. They pulled at my legs and shrieked and I jerked and ran through the filthy dark.
Gypsy had drunk his last drink at a Sixth Street bar in 1981, two years before. By then, he had been homeless and out of work for about five years. Someone had snatched his shoes when he had passed out on the street earlier in the day and he entered the bar barefoot. He sat on a stool, stared at his lap, and used his last few dollars to buy a drink. His mouth tasted like he had cleaned gutters with his tongue. Threads of saliva hung off his bottom lip and fell on his toes. A sad song was playing on a radio behind the bar and for no good reason he started crying, and for no good reason he stood up and walked out of the bar without finishing his drink and said, Fuck this. He stumbled and weaved the few blocks to the Ozanam Center and checked into detox. After twenty-four hours, he was transferred to Sally’s. He told his counselor there he wanted a program. As it happened, Redwood City Treatment Center had an opening.
When the detox was quiet and Gypsy and I sat together listening to people snore, he would sometimes whisper to himself the opening line of “Howl.”
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness
I was unfamiliar with the poem, and noticed how he recited it with feeling instead of the monotone mumble he applied to passages from his textbooks. When we got off work one morning, we walked to North Beach and City Lights Bookstore, founded by beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. There Gypsy showed me books by Ginsberg and the others who’d come to prominence in the fifties for their jazzy word riffs. Gypsy told me he’d attended some of their readings back in the day. He leafed through the books and read aloud to himself, caught up in the experiences and longings described in the poems.
After an hour, I wanted to go home and have my usual morning beer and wind down and crash. Gypsy, however, was not tired. He offered to walk with me although I was headed in the opposite direction from where he lived. He stayed with me until I caught my bus. As the bus pulled away, I watched him pace back and forth on the corner of Market and Van Ness as if he was uncertain which direction to take. Eventually, he would go home and get stoned. He would then roam the streets, impelled by a restlessness that put him on auto pilot, an itch that still kept him awake two years after he had drunk his last drink and passed out into a temporary oblivion on a cot in the Ozanam Center.
On the afternoon that he finished his forty-five day program in Redwood City, Gypsy returned to San Francisco and sat with his buddy Rocky at the corner of Market and Van Ness. Rocky held out a hat to passersby. Gypsy had drunk with Rocky as much as he had with Little Stevie. Rocky was a gentle man in blue jeans and a t-shirt stained from constant wear and too little laundry detergent. He always wore a loopy grin that let everyone see that he was in on the joke that was his life.
Another homeless man, Alabama, sat across the street on a planter drinking a mickey of Tbird. He suffered fierce alcoholic seizures that spun him in violent circles before he collapsed to the ground flopping and twisting like someone electrocuted. He always had blood-stained gauze bandages wrapped around his battered head and face. On that day, he was to relieve Rocky every other hour and panhandle in his place while Rocky took a break and a turn at the wine bottle.
Better leave me some, Rocky said, watching Alabama tip the bottle back.
Gypsy smelled Rocky‘s breath, the embroiled funk of cigarettes and wine rolled into a churning ball of foul heat, and his stomach turned. He felt the newness of his shirt and jeans, the freshness of his body that for more than a month had experienced a shower every morning. He heard the noise of cars, the scuffing of shoes on the sidewalk, the flutter of pigeons. Gypsy itched with the hyper-aware sensation of no longer being confined to Redwood Treatment Center. He was outside, sober and alert.
You want a hit from ’Bama’s bottle, Gypo?
You going to call yourself Ron now, Gypo?
I don’t know. You’re not drinking.
Haven’t even thought about it, Gypsy said.
He looked at his new watch. He had curfew at his half-way house and didn’t want to blow it his first day out. Still he hesitated. What the hell, he had a few minutes. There was nothing to do in the half-way house. After he checked in, he had sat in his room, stared at the walls, and thought about how good he felt not being fucked up. But it also felt strange sitting there alone and sober.
While we worked together, Gypsy told me it took three days to get alcohol completely out of the body, that alcoholism had little to do with what kind of alcohol one drank or how long one had been drinking, even exactly how much alcohol one consumed. He said alcohol abuse differs from alcoholism in that it did not include an extremely strong craving for alcohol, loss of control, or physical dependence.
He would say this then close his eyes and crinkle his forehead, summoning up even more knowledge, and then, as if unburdening himself, continue imparting all that he had memorized into the early morning hours of our shift.
One afternoon on my day off, my friend Al and I got completely wrecked splitting a fifth of Yukon Jack Canadian Whiskey in Golden Gate Park. From there, we got in my car and drove to Baker Beach. I climbed a hill and heard Al shouting ridiculously, You can do it!, like I was attempting the summit of Mount Everest. I remember little after that.
My memory returns to what seems hours later and I see myself without a shirt and shoes running through fog along a highway, shouting for Al in pitch darkness. I’m freezing and flag down a car. I grab the passenger door to get in, but it’s locked. The driver stares at me then accelerates. I hang onto the door handle, run a few steps, and then fall on the pavement. I stand up bleeding from my forehead, stagger to a house and knock on the front door. A woman peers at me through a window but won’t open the door. I tell her I’m cold. She leaves the window and minutes later two police officers pull up and put me in the back of their squad car.
Have you been drinking?, one of the officers asks me.
I imagine them taking me to the Ozanam Center. Just a few beers, I say.
What happened to you?
I was rock climbing on the beach. I fell and tore my shirt off and my shoes.
I don’t know how I came up with that, but they accept my answer. They ask where I parked and I remember. They drive me to my car just a block away, run a check on my plates and let me out.
Be more careful rock climbing, one of them says.
I stand by my car shivering from cold and embarrassment. I drive to my apartment, see that the lights are on and decide to wait in my car until my roommate goes to bed. I push my seat back and fall asleep. I don’t know what time I wake up, head pounding, mouth dry and pasty. The apartment is dark as I hurry inside, slip into my room and lock the door.
Al calls about midnight. He passed out on the beach and woke up with waves lapping his legs. He looked for me, gave up and took a cab home and passed out again.
The next night, pale and nauseous, a tremor in my hands, I walk to work. Gypsy asks me about the cut on my forehead. I tell him I had been helping a friend put up some shelving and a board fell, hitting me. I cross my arms so he won’t see my hands shake. But he sees.
Watch yourself, he says.
Now that he has decided to drink again, Gypsy wonders, What’s a shot of Jack cost?
He picks a pair of jeans off the floor and puts them on. Doesn’t matter. Even if a shot is dirt cheap, his money won’t last. Never did before. He’ll be drinking dollar bottles of Night Train and Thunderbird before the week’s out. Piss and shit on himself too. He sees his future but remains undeterred. He has no false expectations.
He takes another hit from his joint. He glances about his room: the disheveled bed, dirty clothes on the floor, spilled ashtrays, the broken chair by the closet, crumpled cigarette packs everywhere. He has lived in the Cadillac Hotel since he got out of the halfway house. He never changed his clothes when he was drinking unless he went to a homeless shelter and was given something else to wear. Tossed his old shit down and put on the new shit. He still does that. But in an apartment no one picks up the old shit. It stays on the floor until he decides to do laundry or give it away to the Ozanam Center’s clothes closet. Maybe today he’ll do laundry. Then again, what’s the point? When he gets off work he won’t be coming back.
I worked nights for two months before the detox director moved me to days at my request. I had decided to apply to graduate school and earn a master’s in social work. I would need my nights free for classes. On my new shift, I started work at 6:30 in the morning, just as Gypsy was getting off. He would meet me downstairs and we drank coffee together. More often than not he stuck around for hours talking to Little Stevie, Rocky, and Eddie Conover, one of the few clients who went by his real name. Gypsy played pinochle with them in the drop-in and taught me how to play.
Eddie always passed out in the middle of a game and pissed on himself, the piss striking the floor in a steady stream like runoff from a gutter. He was beyond waking up, and Gypsy would help me carry him to a mat to sleep it off. When he woke up, he stumbled off balance into the drop-in and slumped dazed in a chair, unconscious of his soiled pants.
You in Eddie? Gypsy would ask him.
Sometimes, on my days off, I would meet Gypsy in his hotel room and we’d get stoned. He showed me his term papers, all of them graded A+. Some were typed, others written in neat, tight script. His punctuation, grammar, and footnotes were spot on. He pointed to the framed certificates hanging on his wall. He ran a finger under the University of California logo at the top of each certificate to show he was not attending just any school.
I have more certificates than anyone else at Oz, he said.
Gypsy never wanted to catch a flick or grab something to eat on his days off. Instead, we walked the streets, stopping by dozens of homeless men and women who knew him. Some were drunk, others sat in doorways and called out to him in raspy voices I will always associate with people on the street who smoke too much and are exposed to every kind of inclement weather. Still other of his acquaintances nodded silently and walked past us. Gypsy shook the ones who were passed out to see if they were asleep or dead. He doled out cigarettes and change and advised anyone who would listen to check into detox.
I’m not eligible, Little Stevie told him one afternoon. My ten days ain’t up.
Then just pray, Gypsy said.
What’s going to become of us Gypo? Little Stevie said, tears in his eyes.
Us? Gypsy said.
The shelter director resigned about six months after I moved to days, eight months after I started at Oz, and a job announcement was posted. Applicants needed at least two years of experience in social services, a background in alcoholism treatment, and a college degree. Program assistants and counselors complained about the education requirement since none of them could meet it. A few decided to apply anyway.
That morning, after Gypsy got off his shift, we had coffee. He told me he’d had a quiet night. First of the month, everybody had their welfare and disability checks. Be a few days before they blew all their money and would need a place to stay. Then Gypsy suggested I apply for the shelter director job. I laughed, told him he was crazy. I said I didn’t have the experience.
Experience is something you pick up every day, he said. He added, Education takes time. I’m still not done with my extension classes. I don’t know how long it will take. At least you have a college degree. You don’t know shit, but you have a degree.
I looked at him. I had not heard Gypsy express doubt before. That he had a long way to go in school and the end was not in sight. And why was he pushing me? The “kid” who he always reminded was behind him in seniority should now suddenly jump rank and go for a top position in the agency?
He stared back at me and revealed nothing of what he was thinking.
I never told Gypsy the truth about the cut on my forehead. But frightened by my night at Baker Beach, I swore off booze, attended AA meetings. As silly as it sounds, I drank warm milk at night to calm my nerves as my body adjusted to the absence of booze, and I joined a gym where I went after work to break my former routine of going straight home to a beer. It was odd to sleep instead of passing out, to awaken without a hangover. I spoke with other recovering alcoholics but I never spoke to Gypsy. I never told him any of this. But, as I said, he knew. He had to. He had years of experience knowing. Of recognizing the morning jitters. The shame. But he never let on. Maybe he should have but he would never rat out one of his own.
Do it, he said.
I heard no resentment in his voice, no veiled contempt for the unfairness my educational advantages had over him and our other coworkers. Only the weariness of someone who had been up all night with little to do and who was still awake and knew he would be unable to sleep for hours. Perhaps in his exhaustion he had an image of his own future and, in a moment of clarity, seeing how he would end, decided to pass his ambitions on to me. The end came when the detox director telephoned Gypsy and told him he would not be promoted to counselor. The director thought more female counselors were needed and gave another program assistant, Donna, the job. Gypsy came into the Center that afternoon with a bicycle pack filled with all six of his framed certificates. I wasn’t there but I heard he walked directly into the director’s office and placed each frame on his desk. He paced back and forth and shouted, pointing at the certificates, proof of his accomplishments and dedication.
Everyone watched them through the glass window of the director’s second-floor office that overlooked the drop-in. The director waited for Gypsy to finish. Then he stood up and spoke. No one knows what he said. He and Gypsy stared at one another for a long time before Gypsy slumped slightly. He gathered his certificates into his bicycle pack and then stopped. He dropped the pack on the floor and walked out.
Shortly after I was hired at the Center, I’d spoken to the detox director about the alcoholism classes Gypsy was taking. Alcoholism was considered a disability and Gypsy and other recovering staff were therefore eligible for state aid. The California Department of Vocational Rehabilitation covered Gypsy’s tuition. I, on the other hand, would have to pay out of pocket. The classes cost three hundred dollars apiece.
Are they worth it?, I asked the director.
He considered my question for a moment, looked at his desk and then back at me. A recovering alcoholic himself, he had lost an eye in a bar fight and had it replaced with an artificial eye that was larger than his remaining real eye. It appeared magnified, and I never knew how to look at him without staring at it. So I focused on the knot in his tie.
I wouldn’t do it, he said, finally. You’d learn something, but for the cost all you’ll get is a certificate. So what? You already have a college degree. Spend your money on grad school.
Gypsy finishes his joint, puts on his shoes. He writes a check for his rent and includes a note giving thirty-days notice. He knows the hotel manager will keep his damage deposit. Someone will clean his room, clear out his clothes, and toss everything else. He feels an odd lightness followed by a brief flash of apprehension.
He leaves the Cadillac Hotel and walks toward Leavenworth Avenue. He will cut through Civic Center Park, cross Market and turn down Seventh. He knows everyone who hangs out in the park just as he knows every street person everywhere in San Francisco. They’ll give him shit because this time he won’t be generous with his change and smokes. But he knows what’s coming. He knows he’ll go through his cigarettes and money soon enough. They won’t know until later. Then they’ll understand.
I saw Gypsy about a week after I was hired as the new shelter director. He was waiting to sign into detox. He sat in a corner chair wearing a sweatshirt and jeans and a navy blue stocking cap. His face was lined with dirt and his clothes smelled of wood smoke, as if he had been camping. He refused to look at me. His grimed face was tear streaked. I didn’t know what to say, and so I said nothing. Maybe I should have said something about Baker Beach. There but for the grace of God sort of thing. But I refused to patronize him. I was fortunate. My bouts with booze had not derailed my life. I had survived, kept my job. I took a kind of satisfaction in that, as had Gypsy in his own sobriety. How it, along with all those framed certificates on his hotel room wall, had distinguished him from Little Stevie and the rest.
Gypsy had had no sense of himself, no pride based on who he really was. Ron Durazo, a man who had earned my friendship. But it was a one-sided friendship. He was the teacher, the wiser older brother. When the recognition of his professors failed to earn him the promotion he was convinced he deserved, he had nothing and no one to hold him up, least of all me.
Now I was moving toward the career he had imagined for himself. I very well might have hired him for one of the two administrative positions I would soon need to fill in my new office. As it was, I hired a counselor and a program assistant and earned the good will of the detox staff as someone who had not forgotten where he came from. A missed opportunity Gypsy and I never anticipated.
Looking at him alone in his chair, waiting for someone to do his intake, I understood I had to temper my own pride if I was to stay straight.
After Gypsy walked out of detox that day, I never saw him again. Perhaps he got on a Greyhound bus and left to start over elsewhere. I hope so. I don’t want to remember him as I do Lyle, Little Stevie, Rocky, Alabama, Eddie Conover, and the dozens of others I admitted to detox who drank themselves to death before they reached forty.
Instead, I prefer to remember the last time I saw him sober.
I arrive for my shelter director job interview at 8 a.m., wearing a suit and tie. A few of the staff whistle and I cannot help but smile despite feeling miserably nervous. Some of them give me shit about my college degree but wish me luck anyway. I will be interviewed by members of the Ozanam Center’s Board of Directors. I’ve not met any of them before.
A board member steps out of a room on the mezzanine above the drop-in and calls my name. I rub my sweating palms against my pants and approach the stairs.
“Go get ’em, kid!” Rocky yells from the drop-in.
Halfway up the stairs, I glance down and see Gypsy. I won’t know until the next day that he has just delivered his resignation letter. He is wearing a leather jacket, plaid shirt, jeans and polished brown boots. Hair slicked to one side, his gunfighter mustache trimmed to perfection. He raises a hand and I wave back, comforted by his presence, his confidence.
The board member gestures for me to c’mon, and Gypsy nods encouragement. I continue up the stairs. The board member reaches to shake my hand. I look back one last time and see Gypsy below me push open a side door and turn toward Sixth Street.
J. Malcolm Garcia is a contributing writer for Guernica: A Magazine of Art & Politics. His writing has been anthologized in Best American Travel Writing and Best American Nonrequired Reading.
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